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Billionaires Up, America Down

By       Message Holly Sklar       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink

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When it comes to producing billionaires, America is doing great.

Until 2005, multimillionaires could still make the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans. In 2006, the Forbes 400 went billionaires only.

This year, you'd need a Forbes 482 to fit all the billionaires.

A billion dollars is a lot of dough. Queen Elizabeth II, British monarch for five decades, would have to add $400 million to her $600 million fortune to reach $1 billion. And she'd need another $300 million to reach the Forbes 400 minimum of $1.3 billion. The average Forbes 400 member has $3.8 billion.

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When the Forbes 400 began in 1982, it was dominated by oil and manufacturing fortunes. Today, says Forbes, "Wall Street is king."

Nearly half the 45 new members, says Forbes, "made their fortunes in hedge funds and private equity. Money manager John Paulson joins the list after pocketing more than $1 billion short-selling subprime credit this summer."

The 25th anniversary of the Forbes 400 isn't party time for America.

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We have a record 482 billionaires -- and record foreclosures.

We have a record 482 billionaires -- and a record 47 million people without any health insurance.

Since 2000, we have added 184 billionaires -- and 5 million more people living below the poverty line.

The official poverty threshold for one person was a ridiculously low $10,294 in 2006. That won't get you two pounds of caviar ($9,800) and 25 cigars ($730) on the Forbes Cost of Living Extremely Well Index. The $20,614 family-of-four poverty threshold is lower than the cost of three months of home flower arrangements ($24,525).

Wealth is being redistributed from poorer to richer.

Between 1983 and 2004, the average wealth of the top 1 percent of households grew by 78 percent, reports Edward Wolff, professor of economics at New York University. The bottom 40 percent lost 59 percent.

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In 2004, one out of six households had zero or negative net worth. Nearly one out of three households had less than $10,000 in net worth, including home equity. That's before the mortgage crisis hit.

In 1982, when the Forbes 400 had just 13 billionaires, the highest paid CEO made $108 million and the average full-time worker made $34,199, adjusted for inflation in $2006. Last year, the highest paid hedge fund manager hauled in $1.7 billion, the highest paid CEO made $647 million, and the average worker made $34,861, with vanishing health and pension coverage.

The Forbes 400 is even more of a rich men's club than when it began. The number of women has dropped from 75 in 1982 to 39 today.

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Holly Sklar is a widely published op-ed columnist whose books include "Raise the Floor: Wages and Policies That Work for All of Us" and "Streets of Hope: The Fall and Rise of an Urban Neighborhood," the widely taught story of how the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative is rebuilding a long impoverished Boston community.

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